Howard Tisdale walking his cows on Webster Street, c1895. / Credit: Gloria Greis, Needham History Center and Museum

Coasting in the streets. Animals grazing through town. Dogs roaming while in heat. Those are just a few of the bylaws governing life in Needham that will be on the chopping block at tonight’s Special Town Meeting.

The town’s general bylaws are codified in a 74-page document  containing the rules and ordinances that regulate everything from Town Meeting to trench safety. Last updated in July 2022, the document is slated for a range of revisions, some of which are motivated by the Select Board’s belief that the current version is more than occasionally incoherent.

The “Non-Criminal Dispositions” revisions are detailed in Town Meeting Warrant Article 14. The text of this single article consumes eight of the Town Meeting warrant’s 20 pages and will be presented by Select Board member Cathy Dowd.

“It’s a good-government thing to make sure our laws are up to date, that they’re readable and understandable by the public and by the people who enforce them,” said Dowd. “It’s good housekeeping.”

The Select Board planned to bring revisions to the bylaws to Town Meeting last spring, but they pushed them to this fall so a more complete revision could be done. The prior version had been focused more narrowly on how fines are structured for a multitude of noncriminal violations.

Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick said an update that only addressed the fines didn’t go far enough. “We didn’t go through the second piece which is ‘Should we get rid of some of these or change some of these?’ So we looked at the whole thing and [Article 14] is the whole thing.”

The work fell mostly to Myles Tucker, support services manager in the office of the town manager, who took on the administrative equivalent of clearing out the town’s attic AND basement.

Many of the items scheduled for revision date back decades or perhaps — as in the case of grazing of animals — centuries. Other revisions involve activities best described as Things That Hack People Off On Facebook. They include violations for failing to pick up after your dog, riding bicycles on sidewalks or skirting the dump’s yellow bag laws by disposing of household trash in town-owned trash bins.

“It was not usable,” said Dowd simply, already placing the targeted text in the past tense.  “The way some are written now, they don’t make any sense. Nobody can follow them. They’re internally inconsistent. You had fines for $20. In today’s world, that does not make sense.”

The final draft calls for the fines to be placed in category tiers of $100, $200 or $300, but Dowd stresses that revenue enhancement is not even remotely a goal.

“These are fines that we actually don’t want to give. They’re for all sorts of small misbehaviors — some of them hazardous, some of them not,” she said. “We don’t want to have to give out a lot of fines. The idea is for this to be a deterrent.”

If Town Meeting approves, Needham residents will find themselves free of regulations that they may not have known existed. They will be free to go coasting in the streets, for example, an activity that had been forbidden even though Fitzpatrick said it was not crystal clear what qualified as “coasting.”

“We weren’t sure what coasting meant, but there is a statute that defines coasting as actually sledding.We took out a bylaw about dogs being allowed to roam while in heat because no one had any real idea about how to enforce that.”

In addition to staying clear of amorous canines, the article would eliminate bans on the sale of cigarettes by machine, a redundancy as federal and state laws already restrict such sales. For similar reasons, a ban on parking in taxi zones was removed, seeing as there are no taxi stands in Needham.

Members of the grammar police may be comfortable voting in favor of the article, as an item relating to bow hunting was cleaned up.

 “I wrote it,” Fitzpatrick said of the current version.  “And it said you can’t ‘discharge’ a bow and arrow. Someone stood up at Town Meeting and said, ‘You don’t discharge a bow. You discharge an arrow.’ But [Town Meeting] let it go.

“So when we had an opportunity to fix it, we did.”

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